Going in, I fully expected X-Men: Days of Future Past to a mess. The X-Men movie franchise has been a mess for more than a decade at this point. X-Men 3 was garbage, though I am something a defended of it I still can’t call it anything close to good, and the first Wolverine movie was no better. It was so bad that I made no effort to see the next Wolverine. First Class was a fine movie, but it was still messy. It straddled the line between prequel and reboot. Some elements of it didn’t really jive with the earlier X-Men films, but it went out of its way to not outright contradict them. It worked fine on its own, but it place in the larger scheme of things was hard to ascertain.
Still, Days of Future Past was too intriguing to pass up. Bryan Singer was back directing, and he has only one real miss on his resume. (Superman Returns was just so very wrongheaded in so many ways) It also brought back all of the actors from both the first trilogy and First Class, making for the most star-studded cast in a superhero movie this side of The Avengers. Really, how could one pass up a chance to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen on screen again? Plus, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is simply highly entertaining. Still, while it was great to see all of these characters again, trying to shoehorn all those characters on screen could have been messy. Which is why it is so surprising at how great X-Men Days of Future Past is. Not only is it a highly entertaining film, it also manages to meld all the previous X-Men movies into something that is actually comprehensible. It even manages to treat X-Men 3 with respect while completely erasing it from the timeline.
It opens in the near future, a future where mutants, and much of humanity, have been imprisoned by the powerful robotic Sentinels. Fighting against them are the remnants of the X-Men, mostly consisting of the younger half of surviving X-Men from X-Men 3. They use limited time travel to evade the Sentinels, but their numbers dwindle. They are soon joined by the senior half of the X-Men: Storm, Wolverine, Magneto and Professor X. Together they propose a plan, to send Wolverine’s mind back in time to his younger self to try to prevent the whole Sentinel program from starting in the first place.
This leads to Wolverine going back to team up with remnants of the First Class cast to try to fix things. While he has some trouble convincing the younger versions of the mutant leaders to help him, they soon near place of where everything went wrong. Unfortunately, once they get there, things go wrong in a completely different way. After that, Days of Future Past becomes the first superhero movie in a long time where it is actually unclear what is going to happen next. These things usually go along certain lines, but this one goes so far off the rails that the viewer has no clue what is coming. It is exhilarating.
Most of the movie takes place in the past; for the most part this is First Class 2. Other than Wolverine, the old cast only gets a few minutes apiece to show off. Even the new mutants added to the cast barely get time to have their powers explained. Still, it is great to see them again. Magneto and Xavier get a little more time, but not a lot more. The past crew, reduced to just four characters, gets the most of the action. Again, while it is hard to improve on McKellen and Stewart, Fassbender and McAvoy are great as young Magneto and Xavier. Fassbender plays Magneto with self-assured menace. Even when he is helping the good guys he feels like he is one step away from going full supervillain and seeming almost justified in doing so. McAvoy’s Xavier is not the wise leader that Stewarts is; he is a broken and pathetic. Wolverine’s biggest struggle is to get Xavier back on the right track. Along with those two and Wolverine, the other real star is Jenifer Lawrence as Mystique. She is the one responsible for the world’s downward slide, but it is impossible to not to find her actions at least partly justified. Lawrence, despite being covered in blue paint, makes you feel her struggle.
This is a movie of characters and situations that are all fundamentally broken. Wolverine has gone from being the broken one to the one that is most together. For once he is trying to pull everyone else together. It is a very character driven film. It is far from lacking in action or spectacle, but that is not the real draw. The real draw is seeing the transformation of Xavier and Mystique. It is not as fun as many of the Marvel Studios movies, but there is more going on than those strictly popcorn affairs.
This last part might get a bit spoilery, but as someone who has been a fan of these movies for going on 15 years now I was astounded at how this left the X-Men movie franchise. I got enjoyment wading through the crap of X-Men 3 to find things I liked. Mostly that consisted of Kelsey Grammar as the Beast and Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde. However, that movie left the series in a terrible place. They had to go back to do a prequel because X-Men 3 left the present scorched earth. Days of Future Past, while largely clearing the deck for future First Class era movies, almost completely eliminated X-Men 3 from existence. It actually gave everyone from those first two completely excellent movies a happy ending. Almost too happy, but actually it is just perfectly heartwarming. Ignoring the impossibility of getting all those cast members back together to do more movies, it is left in such a way that they could do a sequel picking up just about right after this one. I’d prefer this to be the ending for the original X-Men cast. I want to all those characters to get to keep this happy ending. The biggest advantage superhero movies have over the comics is that they have endings. Bruce Wayne got to retire as Batman in The Dark Knight Rises because the movies are allowed to have endings, while the comics are required to go on indefinitely. This is a perfect ending for the X-Men.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is an excellent movie. It brings back the often wry fun of the first two movies and mixes it with the stylish sexiness of First Class. Whatever direction they choose to take things after this, as long as Singer and one half of this cast are involved I’ll be there. It is shocking at just how well this movie avoids all the pitfalls in its way to deliver a wholly enjoyable movie.